Sunday, January 13, 2019

Shutting the Gate

I think I started this blog in 2009, but I'm not sure.  It was intended to be a space for me to process so much of the things that were running through my head at the time because I process through writing.  I think I always have.  Today, I think one more post and then it's time to shut the gate and move on. 
It's a long one, but since it may be the last one, that's ok. 

It's no secret that my world has seen some major upheavals over the past few months, but those endings have given birth to new beginnings.  There have been times of great grief, but also of great celebrations.  There have been times of uncertainty and panic, but also times of extreme, almost eerie, calm and peace.  I'm not whining or looking for sympathy, just a simple man telling a story as part of a process we all go through at some point in our lives. 

It started July 31 of last year when I got a phone call no son wants to get: "Your dad is having a heart attack and is on the way to the hospital by ambulance."  I don't even remember what I was doing at the time, but whatever it was, I dropped it and headed to the hospital.  Since I lived closer than they did, I beat the ambulance there by 10-15 minutes, and I confess those were some of the longest minutes of my life.  As a biologist by education, and a science geek, I had visions of Schrodinger's cat, in that until I saw dad, he was both alive and dead.  I just didn't know.  He'd already had one major heart attack and quadruple bypass, so I was unsure whether or not his body could handle another one.  That day began a very long journey for my dad, one that he still struggles with, because the heart attack was followed by multiple complications and two very close calls with mortality.  It also exacerbated the Multiple Sclerosis he has battled for 40 years, leaving him unable to care for himself.  Watching our parents age and grow weaker is tough. 

2018 was also the year that my supervisor told me I needed to take a spiritual renewal leave.  In January of last year, he said, "You've been doing this nearly 20 years and at this appointment for 7, it's time for you to take a renewal leave to rest your body and soul."  That caused some anxiety for me because I've never done well with resting.  It's still a growing edge for me but one that I'm more aware of now.  I brought the idea to my leadership team and they were supportive at the time, so I began to study the calendar and look for an opportunity to step away for 30 days. As June rolled around, I had decided to step away for the last two weeks of August and the first two weeks of September.  That's a fairly slow time in the church calendar because liturgically we were still in the season after Pentecost, all of the back to school events would be over, and there was time before Advent planning would need to begin. 

In July, I brought it up again and this time got some push back.  One thing I've learned over 19 years of pastoral ministry is that it's a great place for folks like me.  I've worked since I was 9 years old and had always put work above most anything else.  A church will let you work yourself to death and pat you on the back for it, which fed right into my ego.  That night I took a stand for myself and it began my downfall.  The details are confidential and really not important, but looking back I can now see that was the beginning of the end. 

Then comes August and our next meeting.  This time the mood was completely different in the room and, having been through meetings like this before, watching the gatherings in the parking lot before the meeting, I knew this was not going to go well.  I was not wrong.  Rumors had been flying all over the county about me and I was completely unaware.  For the next half hour or so it was like I was trying to sip water from a fire hose as each person in the room went around the table with one accusation after another.  Two had merit: one was an accident from two years earlier and that I had already apologized for, the other I corrected as soon as I found out it was a problem, so I don't claim total innocence.  None of us can...ever. 

In Celebrate Recovery, as we get to the spiritual inventory part of the recovery process, there is a sheet of paper we fill out describing things like, the event that caused pain, the person who hurt us, the people we've hurt, and our role in it.  It's a painful process, but a necessary one if recovery is to be obtained.  After that meeting I began my own inventory, owning my parts of the problems. 

I contacted my supervisor, told him what was going on, and said, "There is no way I can recover from this."  In my gut, I felt like my 19 year career was over.  Folks in my inner circle kept saying things like, "Don't panic yet," or "Let's don't go worst case scenario yet," but I knew. 

The timing couldn't have been worse.  Dad was still in the hospital, and I was 4 days away from a 30 day leave that was intended to rest my spirit, but there was no rest.  We had always been very intentional about keeping an eye out for any smoldering fires, but now I wasn't going to be in the position to do that for a month, and the inferno began to rage. 

I started hearing about all of the things I was supposed to have done, and it was almost comical in that I told my wife, "Evidently I have been a very busy young man."  None of them were true, but in small town life, it doesn't matter.   Blood and sex sells. 

Long story short, two weeks later, there was to be a meeting with my supervisor to discuss the situation.  As part of the renewal leave, we had scheduled 3 days of vacation in Gatlinburg, and it happened to fall on the weekend the meeting was to take place.  That Sunday afternoon, I finally got the phone call I'd been waiting for, and when I asked how it went, I was told, "Not well."  As I stood there on the sidewalk in Gatlinburg, listening, trying to keep my knees under me and not vomit on innocent passersby, I learned that I no longer had a job and that the church leadership wouldn't allow me to come back and say goodbye.  In two weeks, folks I loved dearly and trusted as part of my inner circle had turned on me.  I'd been told years earlier that a church can turn on their pastor overnight, but those kinds of things happen to other people, not me.  The problem was, this was done without the knowledge of the congregation, and had been building for months right under my nose.  I had been fired.  It was also done in a way that made it look like I just left. 

Then the panic set in.  We discussed options and began looking at future plans, but my world was spinning out of control so fast that I was unable to focus on anything but that moment.  What was I going to do?  How was I going to support my family?  Where were we going to live? 

See, everything in our world at the time was dependent on the church, and I have since learned that this is a dangerous scenario.  It lulls the clergy family into a false sense of security, while the reality is most of us are just one board meeting away from unemployment.  Those of us who are set upon a pedestal by those we serve become easy targets for rumors, gossip, and lies.  Those things are not harmless words.  They are devastating and can bring destruction and death wherever they are spread.  I'm living proof. 

I was still credentialed, but there were no appointments available.  I had wanted to open a restaurant for a couple years, and I started thinking about that as an option.  I could always put my toolbelt back on and go back to driving nails, but I was 17 years older than the last time I did that and wasn't sure my body could handle it. 

The first priority was to find a house.  That is where the story begins to shift from the devastation I had just experienced to knowing my family was being cradled by the hand of God.  Folks were still talking, mouths were still running, tongues were still flapping, but I was discovering a peace I had not felt in years.  It was going to be ok.  Somehow.  We were going to be ok.  I had no idea what the future was going to look like, but for some reason, I wasn't worried about it as much anymore.  There were still moments of panic, but they were becoming fewer and farther between. 

I called our realtor on the way back from Gatlinburg and said, "Find us a house, ASAP."  Without hesitation, she said, "Don't worry.  I'm on this."  The next day we had set up the first showing.  It was a possibility, but not what we were looking for, yet it would be doable if we weren't able to find something else.  We knew our price range.  We had an idea of what we could afford and where we wanted to land, but for the next week we looked at every house on the market in the Purchase Area.  We set up a couple more showings, and the next week found the one we would go on to buy.  I could write for hours about all of the little things that fell into place for us over the next few weeks, but suffice it to say, it was nothing short of the hand of God at work.  We had everything on our end ready for closing 6 business days after we signed the contract.  The loan officer said she had never had one go through that quickly in her career.  Every time we needed something for the house so that we could move in, somehow that need was met.  Over and over this happened for the next month and it reminded me that I didn't have to be in control of this new life situation because God was.

It was a very humbling experience.

After we settled into the house, I began to look at the future through calmer eyes, and started thinking about what I was supposed to do.  For me, full time ministry was not an option anymore because I never wanted to be dependent on the church again.  However, ministry had been my life for 19 years so I didn't want to completely walk away.  The sandwich shop was going to be too great a risk, because even though it was something I would love to do, I just wasn't sure it would work or that I could even put together the capital to get started.  That left my tool belt as the best option.

I loved building houses.  I did if for nearly 10 years before entering the ministry and the smell of sawdust in the morning never completely got out of my system.  The problem was, I was 47 years old, my knees were pretty much shot already, and like many clergy, I was terribly out of shape.  I knew that if this was the path I chose, the first two or three months were going to be brutal.  On top of that, we were quickly coming into winter, and winter is the worst time of year to be a contractor.  Still, there was a peace and a calm that I had not experienced in years.  

So, I bit the bullet and put out a quick little blurb on social media saying that I was putting my tool belt back on and if someone needed home repairs, just shoot me a message.  Again, I was humbled.  Blessed, extremely blessed, but humbled.  I didn't expect the response, nor was I prepared for it.  My prayer was, "God, if you present the opportunities, I'm not afraid to work hard."  Today is January 13 and I'm scheduling for March already.  I am a very blessed man. 

Now for the theological reflection part, because without that, it sounds like I'm just bitching and moaning.  Let me start by saying that my faith in God has never been stronger.  I have experienced so many things over the last few months that can only be explained as the hand of God at work.  For 19 years I've talked to others about surrendering to God's will, but it wasn't until I hit my own personal rock bottom that I did that myself.  Once you find yourself with nowhere else to go and nothing else to lose, surrender seems to come easier.  Now, I'm very thankful for all I've been through because I feel that my relationship with my Creator is stronger than it has ever been. 

The Church, with a capital C, not so much.  And I own that.  Trust in the system and the institution has been all but destroyed.  I was born into the church and have never strayed, save a few months in my 16th year, but even then I came back.  I have given the past 19 years of my life to serving the church, only to be swept away like drink cups under the bleachers after a ballgame.  Still, I know the importance of community.  We were not created to live life alone. 

If and when I come back to pastoral ministry, and that is still very much an option, I will come back with a new understanding of the people we in the church call "the dones."  They have been part of a church, were hurt by the church, and said they were done with the church.  Their trust has also been destroyed, but the God who breathed life into them still very much wants them to be part of a community.  Personally, I have traded my vestments for work boots for a season and haven't been happier in years.  I have been to worship twice in five months and I get it.  I get why folks find it so easy to skip church to do something else on Sunday morning.  I feel like the experiences I've had over the last few months put me in a wonderful position to understand those who are frustrated with organized religion and could very well give birth to a very dynamic ministry.  That excites me...but I'm just not sure that I'm ready yet. 

I have grieved the losses and welcomed the unknowns.  I have dealt with my anger, and have gained a new understanding of forgiveness.  I have witnessed the hedge of protection so many pray for.  I have been broken down and reborn.  Would I ask to go through this?  Not on a dare.  Am I thankful for it?  Every minute of every day.  Today, I can honestly say that life is good...very good. 

I'm currently writing a book about how God walks with us through the valley times and often brings us safely through the other side.  It's not ready to be published yet, but the writing itself has been very cathartic.  As for this blog, it, too has been very therapeutic over the last ten years, but I think it's time.  It's time, at least for a season, to close the gate and move on. 

As I close the door on this season of my life and look forward to the next, I leave you with a blessing attributed to St. Francis:

May God bless you with a restless discomfort about easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may seek truth boldly and love deep within your heart.
May God bless you with holy anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may tirelessly work for justice, freedom, and peace among all people. 
May God bless you with the gift of tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all they cherish, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and transform their pain into joy. 
May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you really can make a difference in this world, so that you are able, with God's grace, to do what others cannot be done. 

Until God tells me it's time to write again, peace be with you.